The sport of running, like any sport, has its own set of traditions, customs and folklore. These “truisms”, passed down from generation to generation of coaches and runners, seem to be unquestioningly accepted as fact by virtue of history and repetition. Every so often one of these conventional wisdoms (e.g., my college cross-country coach’s insistence that we must have steak and eggs as our pre-meet meal!) bites the dust, but most often traditions persist because … well, they’re Traditions! The problem is, just because 55 million runners do something doesn’t necessarily make it right.
One of these track traditions, dating back at least to my scholastic days, that I think falls in this category is a popular technique for stretching the hamstrings. Go to any race or track meet and I guarantee you will see a high percentage of competitors employing the hurdler’s stretch to loosen the muscles in the back of the thigh. Sitting on the ground with one leg straight forward, the other “trailing” back, reaching forward with the hands toward the front foot and the head resting on the knee (if you are a yoga master!), an individual performing this stretch looks like a runner caught in freeze-frame at the top of the hurdle. What could be wrong with this? Plenty! For example:
- The hurdler’s stretch imparts a significant twisting motion to the lower portion of the spine and the sacro-iliac joints. These joints are not designed to absorb a large amount of rotation and excessive twisting can overstretch the ligaments that hold them together. Unstable sacro-iliac joints (the juncture of the sacrum and pelvis) may lead to inefficient muscle action, which may actually cause more stress to the hamstrings. In other words, the stretch that is supposed to be helping could be hurting the very area you are addressing.
- The hurdler’s stretch is not the most efficient way to stretch the hamstrings. Much of the stretching is actually occurring as flexion of the lower and upper spine. Not that this is necessarily bad, but it isn’t really isolating the hamstrings effectively.
- This stretch is what is known as a passive stretch. In other words, the force used to stretch the muscle is an external one (gravity, pulling with the arms, etc.). Passive stretching results in a “stretch reflex” in which the nervous system, sensing this external force, “orders” the muscle to contract to protect it from being torn apart. The result is that you are trying to stretch something that is fighting you. This can be overcome by performing the stretch gently and gradually until the reflex is “disarmed” after 20-30 seconds, but a better way is to perform the active stretch of the hamstring described below.
An active stretch of the hamstrings is one that utilizes contraction of the antagonistic (opposing) muscle — the quadriceps — to help the hamstrings relax. Since the hamstrings must be in a state of non-contraction for the quadriceps to function (and vice-versa), nervous system input from the quadriceps results in an inhibition of the stretch reflex in the hamstrings.
To do this stretch, all you need is a chair. Sit in the chair with your back straight (I said, Sit Up Straight!), which really means you should be maintaining the natural concave curve in your lower back. (Place the back of one hand there to make sure.) Holding that position, slowly straighten one knee as far as you can until you either cannot go any farther or you feel the curve in your back start to give. Hold that for 7-10 seconds. Relax your back a few seconds and then repeat with the other leg. Do 10 times each leg.
More on hamstring woes next month.